The Devil’s Arithmetic

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

What are the main takeaways from the Devil’s Arithmetic?

The Devil's Arithmetic ThumbAmazon: The Devil’s Arithmetic

Synopsis: Hannah Stern is a 12-year-old Jewish girl living in New Rochelle, New York in the late 1980s.  She is tired of her family’s religious traditions and of “remembering the past.”  At the conclusion of the Passover Seder meal, Hannah is asked to open the door to the prophet Elijah.  When she opens the door, she time travels back to 1942 Poland and becomes her aunt’s friend Chaya Abramowicz.  As Chaya, she is captured by the Nazis and lives in a concentration camp.

Parental thought on The Devil’s Arithmetic:

The negative:  My 7th-grade child had to read this for school.  For a book about a girl time traveling to the Holocaust, it really wasn’t all that exciting.  The tone is monotonous, “this-is-what-happened” and not an exciting story unfolding. There is little character development.  The book is filled with Yiddish words that stopped the flow as I tried to understand their meaning from context. I was surprised that there was no glossary considering the book is pre-Google.  I gained understanding Googling the Yiddish words as opposed to extrapolating meaning from context.  The author missed an opportunity to educate on Jewish traditions.  While she does detail remembering and certain roles of the Seder meal, the general concept is not explained.  For example, my daughter’s homework asked, “During the Passover meal, what is Hannah’s family remembering?”  My daughter answered: the Holocaust and the many Jews killed.  She received 100%!  If one does not have a general understanding of Passover, this could be the understanding gained from the book.  I had to walk her through Moses-Pharaoh-Plagues-Passover. Religion is becoming less and less prevalent in our society and knowledge of other faiths is lacking.

The positive: I gave this book 4/5 stars.  While I didn’t find it an exciting read, I think there are three important points you can discuss with your child.

Main points to discuss from The Devil’s Arithmetic:

  1. To Hannah, her family’s religious traditions were boring and annoying. This book reminds me as a parent to not go through the motions with our religious traditions but to educate and explain the traditions to my children.  Catholics, rely on sacred Tradition to understand “doctrine, life, and worship” (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 78 and 95).  Next time during religious traditions, ask your child(ren), “Do you know and understand WHY we are doing this?  What is the significance/importance?”
  2. Remembering.  This is the main point of the book.  The importance of remembering our history.  In 1 and 2 Kings, we read how the Jews forgot about the Passover tradition, and things weren’t going so well for them. Therefore, the king made it a command for God’s people to observe Passover again (2 Kings 23:21-23).   Remembering is important. This book reminds us we should not forget historical genocide.  You can discuss “every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until [natural] death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 2273).  Can your child think of any examples how this right to life from conception to natural death is not currently being protected by the government?
  3. The third takeaway is briefly mentioned but very important.  The biggest struggle with religion, “If God is so good and loving, why do bad things happen to good people?”  From pg. 142:  “God is letting it happen,” Rivka said, “But there is a reason.  We cannot see it yet.  Like the binding of Isaac.  My father always said that the universe is a great circle and we – we only see a small piece of the arc.  God is no monster, whatever you think now.  There is a reaon.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church Amazon: Catechism of the Catholic Church

Paragraphs to answer this question:

310: But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.

311: Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it: For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.

312: In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures. . .  From the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men – God, by his grace that “abounded all the more”, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good.

314: We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.

A similar book to The Devil’s Arithmetic:

Awakening by Claudia Cangilla McAdam.  The main character in this book travels back to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  I have also blogged about this book here: Awakening

Awakening Amazon: Awakening (Crossroads in Time Books)” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Awakening

Keywords: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Jewish Books, Time Travel, World War II, Holocaust, Remembering, Passover

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